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Returning home is harder for some than combat

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Bemidji unit
Eric Alger (back row, center) seen here in this undated photo with other members of his unit.
Photo Courtesy of Eric Alger

Greg Roberts and his girlfriend Lyla were relaxing in their living room, playing with their dogs. Roberts considers it a sort of therapy. 

The former Minnesota National Guard staff sergeant would never have guessed he'd need therapy. Roberts figured after coming home from 16 months in Iraq, the adjustment would take maybe a month, or two. It's been years, and he's still dealing with it.

"It's something I did not anticipate... coming home and having it be a more difficult experience than actually being deployed," Roberts said.  "I was pretty much emotionally dead and I still deal with that now."

In Bemidji, the latest round of National Guard homecomings brings back memories for some Red Bull veterans who served in Iraq from 2006 to 2007. For many who served in Bemidji's Alpha Company, the memories of war are still fresh. Some are still struggling to reclaim their civilian lives

Roberts, 32 , was in charge of a team of infantry soldiers who carried out combat patrols west of Fallujah. At the time it was one of the most dangerous regions in Iraq. Often their job was to find and disable improvised explosive devices on hot, desert highways. 

Roberts said life in Iraq meant always being on high alert.

"You get that constant stress every day, 24 hours a day for so long, that that becomes normal, that you're always amped up, you're always stressing," Roberts said. "And that just becomes the normal state of affairs. And that changes you."

Eric Alger
Former Minnesota National Guard specialist Eric Alger while serving in Iraq.
Photo Courtesy of Eric Alger

The most horrific moment of the war for Roberts came late afternoon on March 23, 2007. He and another team member, Specialist Eric Algers, responded to a roadside explosion that included U.S. casualties. When they got to the site, they found the bomb had killed a friend from their own company, Staff Sergeant Greg Riewer of Frazee.

"To see a guy that I'd known for years and is just the nicest guy... and then all of the sudden, bam, there he is. He's dead, and you're staring at him on the road," Roberts said. "And that's when you really have to face your own mortality."

Specialist Eric Alger recalled they could see smoke as they approached the site.

" We pulled up and the truck was overturned. There was some guys laying all over. Other guys were on the ground helping... I'd saw this, it just looked like some body armor and whatnot... and once we'd figured out that that was Greg, that's when it really hit you, you know? My knees started to buckle and that was tough." Alger said.

Riewer's death was hard on everyone, but things got even worse. As part of President George Bush's troop surge in Iraq, Alpha Company's deployment was extended by four months. The extension was psychologically devastating to the unit's morale.

Eric Alger
Former Minnesota National Guard specialist Eric Alger says his transition to civilian life was difficult, but he believes he's done well.. Just a month after being part of combat patrols in Iraq, Alger was in a Bemidji State University classroom studying criminal justice.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

COMING HOME AND FACING THE FALLOUT ALONE

Finally, in July 2007, Alpha Company returned home to Bemidji.  There were people in the streets waving flags. Eric Alger said  the festive scene felt surreal after coming from a combat zone.

 Once the welcome was over, the soldiers went their separate ways to find a way back to a normal life. Algers says many of them did it alone. 

"Once everyone gets home, they turn into cockroaches. Everyone scrambles and your life goes on," Alger said. "I'm not going to life, it was tough to adjust back. Everything from driving, to school....You can't just throw someone back into the real world."

For some of the soldiers, things got tougher with each passing month. Roberts felt depressed. He was restless and irritable. Moments of normal stress made him shut down or react with anger. Loud noises triggered panic. He didn't like crowded places -- and still doesn't. 

Greg Roberts, Lyla Owens
Former Minnesota National Guard staff sergeant Greg Roberts is still dealing with mental health issues more than two years after returning from deployment in Iraq. He and his girlfriend, Army veteran Lyla Owens, have both been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. The couple says they've been working together on recovery.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

 "I like knowing where the door is. It's the first thing I look for. I look for where to get out," Roberts said. 

It was six months before Roberts realized he had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Along the way, he got support from his girlfriend, Lyla Owens, a native of North Carolina. Owens is a veteran of the Iraq war, too. She's also dealing with PTSD. The two met when they were both on R&R at a resort in Qatar.

Owens says living with Roberts helped them fight their demons together. She said the moment she realized a relationship with Roberts would be challenging was when he got angry in the car, when he thought the car behind them was following too closely.   "He stops the car in the middle of traffic, gets out of the car, walks to the guy and tells him to 'get off my effing rear,' and then gets back in the car and drives and that's that," Owens said. "And I'm sitting here going, okay. We can work through this. We can do this."

It was a full year and a half before Greg Roberts went to the VA for help. He says he had an emotional breakdown. He'd been having three or four panic attacks a week. Lyla took him to the emergency room several times because of the burning sensation in his chest.

"Couldn't breath, sweating, classic stress responses. Very, very uncomfortable, probably the worst thing I've ever experienced," Roberts said. This just came out of nowhere and just smacked me like a 40-ton grain truck."

All the while Roberts was back home, he'd wanted nothing to do with his fellow soldiers. He didn't like thinking about the war, and seeing them was too much of a reminder.

As time passed, he found out that other soldiers were struggling, too. Some had family troubles. Some got DWIs. One friend lost his job over an angry outburst.

THE TRAGEDY THAT WAS A WAKE-UP CALL

Last September, the members of Alpha Company got word that one of their own had taken his own life. Roberts said news of the suicide spread quickly, and it drew most of them together for the first time in two years. They called each other and some showed up at the armory and began talking. 

"Once we started talking and everybody put their little piece of the puzzle together, it was so obvious what he was going to do. It was staring at us in the face," Roberts said. 

The tragedy was a wake-up call for Alpha Company. Some in the unit vowed to keep closer tabs on each other. 

Even so, many drifted apart once again since the incident last fall. 

Roberts' father, Jeff, is a retired army recruiter but he said had trouble recognizing signs of stress in his own son. He said the guys in the unit will do their best to help each other, but for some, bad memories remain close to the surface. 

"They're a band of brothers. They will fiercely protect each other. But right now there's time and distance between them," Jeff Roberts said. "They're linked for life, but today, here and now, they're probably not that excited about spending quality time reminding themselves of the old days."

Greg Roberts said he knows some of his fellow soldiers are still hurting, but they're either afraid of the stigma or are too proud to ask for help. He mentioned a friend with clear symptoms of PTSD who doesn't want to get help. 

"He said he doesn't want to be a leech on the system," Roberts said. "He feels somehow honor bound to just suck it up."

Roberts said he's making progress with his own mental health. He got weekly therapy from the VA for a few months. He's on several medications that help with depression and anxiety. He still checks in with a psychiatrist.

Members of Alpha Company had different experiences with the VA. Eric Alger didn't need much help but got what he asked for from the VA. 

Greg Roberts receives disability compensation from the agency but he is still frustrated. He wanted someone to reach out to him, but the help he received stemmed from his own efforts. 

"It's almost like a social Band-Aid, in a way. They just started sending me a check. And I'm like, hey, you know what? That's great and everything, but I'd rather be normal again," Roberts said. "I thought maybe somebody would call me, try to set up a counseling session. No. You have to be proactive about it."

Since Roberts returned home, the VA has put a program in place that makes contact with every returning soldier.

After floundering for two and a half years, Greg Roberts said he's ready to move forward with his life. Before his deployment to Iraq, he was working on a master's degree in mental health counseling.  

But Roberts has given up on that idea.  He's now taking classes to become a chiropractor.